'American Factory' Wins Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Earns Praise from Exec. Producers Barack and Michelle Obama
The Obamas' production company Higher Ground released the film through Netflix deal
Veteran documentary filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert are celebrating the first Oscar victory of their illustrious careers, and getting some love from the former first couple in the process..
Their film American Factory won Best Documentary Feature Sunday night, the second win in that category in the last three years for Netflix (the streamer won in 2018 for Icarus). The result brought tweets of praise from Barack and Michelle Obama, who came on board as executive producers of the film through their company Higher Ground.
“Congrats to Julia [Reichert] and Steven [Bognar], the filmmakers behind American Factory, for telling such a complex, moving story about the very human consequences of wrenching economic change,” former President Obama tweeted minutes after the category was announced. “Glad to see two talented and downright good people take home the Oscar for Higher Ground’s first release.”
Minutes later, the former first lady tweeted, “Congrats to Julia, Steven, and the whole crew on winning Best Documentary for #AmericanFactory, Higher Ground’s first release! So glad to see their heart and honesty recognized—because the best stories are rarely tidy or perfect. But that’s where the truth so often lies.”
Working people have it harder and harder these days. And we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite.
Going into the ceremony, American Factory was considered a slight favorite to prevail over For Sama, Honeyland, The Cave and The Edge of Democracy (the latter film a fellow Netflix title).
"Even before that envelope got opened, just being in the presence, in the company of our sister and brother documentarians, who risked their lives making stories, bringing stories to us about hospitals being bombed in Syria, about Brazil, about Macedonia," Reichert commented on stage, "we were so proud, we are inspired by you guys."
Reichert and Bognar, who are partners in life as well as in filmmaking, live about 25 minutes away from the setting of American Factory, a disused GM plant just outside Dayton, Ohio. They documented what happened when a Chinese auto glass giant called Fuyao set up shop in the old factory, bringing the promise of new jobs to a depressed rustbelt town. The cross-cultural venture ended up triggering friction between some American blue collar workers and Chinese management over working conditions and the low, non-union wages paid by Fuyao.
The film is even-handed, but Reichert let the Oscar audience know where her sympathies lie when it comes to owners versus workers, referencing a line from Karl Marx in her acceptance speech.
"Our film is from Ohio and China--go Buckeyes!, sorry--but it really could be from anywhere that people put on a uniform, punch a clock, trying to make their families have a better life," she noted. "Working people have it harder and harder these days. And we believe that things will get better when workers of the world unite."
Backstage at the Oscars, the filmmakers were asked to share their observations on Chinese and American workers collaborating on a factory floor, in light of the Trump administration's ongoing trade war with China.
"What we saw in the plant was that working people, like the blue collar folks, whether they were Chinese or whether they were American, like, found ways to get along, found ways to have fun, even if they didn't speak the same language -- which they mostly didn't -- found ways to discover each other, make the day go by faster," Reichert noted. "When the pressure of profit [later] came and the management and the owner started... making things harder, then there began much more tensions. But I hope our film makes you see two things: one is that workers around the world are definitely getting pushed down. But also that we can be fair to each other. We can listen to each other."
She added. "I think that's why President Obama and Mrs. Obama took on our film at Sundance, because... they felt it could help people listen to each other, and through stories, through these stories, create empathy, which then builds relationships."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.